Monday with Michael Spencer
I am setting out to do something that is unlikely to be extremely popular. I am writing a theologically tentative essay about a word most of my readers have never heard and an issue I’ve only heard one other person discuss. Why this word would inspire serious theologizing on my part, and require an essay to explain, will only be evident to those who expend the effort to read and think along with me. (And as I said, this is a very tentative project.) While it isn’t my goal to persuade, I believe that some segment of my readership will find this essay a further step along a road they’ve been traveling for some time.
The word is “transactionalism.” I no longer believe in it, which won’t bother anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about. Fair enough. The dictionary defines a “transaction” as “a communicative action or activity involving two parties or things that reciprocally affect or influence each other.” Transactionalism would be a belief system that involves a transaction- actions on our part and results- between God and a human being. All based on reciprocal actions.
Put that way, I hope you will recognize that the typical evangelical is awash in a sea of transactional language, images, explanations, sermons, and songs. Evangelicalism is often one huge system for “getting God to do stuff.” I’m out of that business with God, because I don’t think God was ever in that business.
In the simplest terms, transactionalism is the belief that in response to some action on my part, God responds to me and something happens that was not the case before my action. Placed in the context of basic Christian belief, I am saying that I no longer believe that God responds, in a transactional fashion, to actions on my part, but relates to me totally according to His own good pleasure in the Lordship and mediation of Jesus.
This does not mean that I do not recognize the place of transactional language. Yes, the Bible frequently uses such language. A certain amount of transactional language is unavoidable, particularly in talking about prayer, covenants, sacrifices or in discussing Biblical narratives. But despite this, I believe that if we were to see all of God’s dealings with human beings from the divine point of view, we would not see transactionalism, but instead see God’s own gracious outworkings of unprompted, sovereign salvation in Jesus.
What must I do to be saved?
The New Testament uses three commands to describe what seems to be “our side” of the transaction: repent, believe, and confess. The many variations and synonyms don’t need to be listed. Even if we include the diversity of Christian beliefs about the necessity of baptism, the majority of Christians would agree that repentance, faith and some form of confession are repeatedly urged and illustrated by the New Testament writers.
Most evangelical Christians would agree that these are “our part” in a transaction with God called “being saved.” We repent from sin, we believe in Jesus and the Gospel message, then we demonstrate the reality of that faith through some form of confession. That confession is usually understood by evangelicals to be a public invitation or altar call, baptism and/or the public confession that precedes church membership. In response, God gives us salvation by removing our sin and crediting us with the righteousness of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the blessings of salvation become ours. Our entire existence is then infused with the “new creation” that is “in Christ.”
But is this the best way to think of the Christian message? I have serious questions about whether transactionalism confuses the language of scripture with the realities of God, and in the process, leads to a religion of “doing business” with a God who is manipulated. Is transactionalism the source of the trivialization of God and the elevation of man that plagues evangelicalism? I believe so.
Transactional approaches are common in many areas of the Christian life. If we confess our sins, God forgives them. If we have faith when praying, our prayers will be answered. If we pray in large numbers, God will send revival or perform miracles. If we fully surrender, greater power will come into our lives. Of course, we confess, believe and repent….and God responds. Right? Transactionalism tells Christians that they are constantly in a situation where what they do will determine what God does, and what God does is his side of a transaction that starts with- and depends upon- us.
It’s not hard to think in these terms, especially if you are an American. Transactionalism is deeply ingrained in us from virtually all of our human relationships and experiences. I probably sound well off the farm to say I question whether this is really the way God operates. Some may say I am advocating a kind of hyper-Calvinistic fatalism where our choices are so predetermined they are meaningless. I can assure you that is far from my position. I believe our choices are real and meaningful. In fact, I tend to believe our freedom is far more dynamic than most of my reformed friends. But I do not believe the Gospel is a set of directions for transactions between God and people. I believe the Gospel is revelation of who God is, and the announcement of the acceptance that comes from God in His Son, Jesus.
One of the most frequent transactional promises heard in Christianity is the invitation to make Jesus your personal savior. Christ stands and knocks. We open the door, let him in, and allow him to change us.
I believe this misrepresents the New Testament message. N.T. Wright uses an illustration that I have found helpful, though I will use my own version.
It is the time of the Roman empire, and a small village on the outskirts of an outlying Asian province has received a messenger from the capital. The village elders have gathered the whole city to hear the message from the outside world. After the formal greetings, the messenger stands and speaks.
“The new emperor, Tiberius Caesar, sends you greetings. Our divine emperor extends his benevolent rule to this village, and proclaims his power and wisdom to all your citizens. In the future, taxes and tribute from you will be brought to Tiberius. Those who submit to his rule can expect peace and justice. Those who rebel against him will find justice and punishment. Tiberias Caesar is Lord!”
Is this a description of a transaction between the citizens of the city and the new emperor? The language of the messenger at first appears to be transactional, as much of the language of the New Testament appears to describe a “give and get” arrangement between God and the Christian. But is that really what’s going on?
What we actually have here is an announcement of a new order. The villagers are being informed of the new order and realities of that order. Their acceptance or rejection of the announcement is secondary to the reality of whether their behavior now conforms to the new order. Tiberias isn’t opening a business and looking for customers. He’s informing his subjects of what the future will be like.
Tiberias is Lord. “Accepting” him as Lord isn’t a transaction; it’s an embracing of reality. Sending taxes to Tiberias may bring Roman protection, but no one is “buying” the friendship of the emperor. They are wisely sending on to Tiberias what already belongs to him. If a new road appears in the city, it is not a transaction with Tiberias that brought the road; it is the “will” of Tiberias that brings roads and blessings; war and peace.
Is “transaction” the word that best applies here? Or is it recognition? The messenger is proclaiming the advent of a new order and the wise benefits of recognizing that order. While his language may sound transactional, the realities of the situation make it obvious that something entirely different has arrived.
Various persons in the city may “repent,” “confess” and “believe” in the new order, but does anything new happen at those points? Or do these responses simply indicate a rearranging and recalibrating of the person’s life in line with the new order and reality of Tiberias?
This illustration may seen silly, but I believe it holds much of the truth that the New Testament is proclaiming, particularly in the fully matured theology of the later epistles and the Gospel of John. In the Gospels, the kingdom of God isn’t coming. It is here, now, being revealed. It is present, but we have not come to terms with it. Jesus’ incarnation plants a sign of the kingdom’s presence in the midst of human history. His journey to earth doesn’t begin the kingdom, or invite us to a transactional relationship with God. Jesus demonstrates that God’s reality, compassion and Lordship are always present.
Repentance, faith and confession are ways we recognize and embrace this kingdom and this king. We do not “bring” the kingdom; we surrender to it and embrace its ever present power.
I also believe it the illustration points out the relationship between the Christian and the kingdom of God. Are verses like Colossians 1:13-14 describing the results of a transaction, or do they describe the free and gracious action of God, to which we respond?
While I like Wright’s illustration very much, I feel it’s important to add a particularly Christian nuance. If the New Testament proclamation is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then we must talk about “What kind of King is Jesus? How does he differ from other kings and Lords?” The answer to that question is something like this- and it is very important: Jesus is a King who pardons rebels, by taking the rebellion and its consequences upon himself.
In other words, the relationship of rebellious subjects to a sovereign does add the potential of a needed transaction of forgiveness. In the Gospel, we are presented with the clear truth that Jesus preemptively forgives rebels through his own reconciliation and mediation. The “acceptance” of that forgiveness is the closest we come to a transaction in the Gospel.